By MAGGIE McLEAN
There aren’t many places where Melissa McMichael hasn’t knitted. She knits in coffee shops and libraries. She knits during lectures. She mastered the art of knitting without looking during a dark, midnight bus ride from Halifax.
However, her special knitting space is in the University of New Brunswick greenhouse, where she’s spent many a cold day completing projects for craft shows, gifts, and to fill her shop on the e-commerce website Etsy.
“I have a textile brand called Mermaid Boyfriend,” said McMichael. “It’s inspired by a Matthew Arnold poem, actually, but the brand is more inspired by nature. So I look for colours and things that I find in the ocean or in forests.”
McMichael is a young knitter from Fredericton, N.B. She’s a student at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design and works at Joy of Framing downtown. In between all of this, she still finds the time to knit.
She sells her products at local craft shows, but she also has an online shop on Etsy, a website that allows people to start their own shops and sell products to people around the world.
The internet and e-commerce has provided endless business opportunities for people around the world. It’s made it possible for artists with start-up brands such as Mermaid Boyfriend to sell their products to whoever they want, at whatever pace they want. Online shopping websites such as Etsy, offer new businesses an easy path to selling their products.
But what challenges come with this?
McMichael started knitting in high school, right around the time her grandmother was hospitalized with Huntington’s disease.
“She asked me to knit her a blanket for her in the special care home, so that she would have something to make it feel more like home,” said McMichael. “So I spent every single day knitting. Every single day, so that she would have something by the end of the summer when she moved into the home. And I haven’t stopped knitting.”
People began recommending she sell her crafts, which led to her eventually setting up at craft shows and starting her online store.
Having her brand exist largely online made it easier for her to make initial name changes when she was trying to define her brand. Although she’s been settled on the Mermaid Boyfriend brand for a while now, McMichael went through a couple of potential names before settling.
“I was looking for something more sincere than Brit’s Knit Knacks. I was actually thinking of calling myself ‘East of Montreal’, because my dad always said there was nothing east of Montreal and I wanted to be the something east of Montreal. A lot of my friends told me it sounded too pretentious, and again, it would have just been insincere. Mermaid Boyfriend is more my sense of humour.”
The way McMichael currently has her shop set up, it’s selling mostly by request. She will post items she has completed and intends to sell, but there is also an option to send her specific requests for various products such as hats, scarves, hair bows, cross-stitches and ties.
E-commerce creates a global marketplace, but McMichael says that having an online shop presents its own problems, including keeping customers happy, who are able to write online reviews.
“Because of having to having to go through and describe everything, there’s sometimes discrepancies,” said McMichael. “So many people I know who sell things on Etsy and stuff like that have had negative reviews because it wasn’t exactly what they pictured.”
Keeping her store stocked also can be a struggle with her busy schedule. She typically tends to post things as she makes them, but it can be hard to find the time to fill requests. Even if she does succeed in selling an item, shipping it to the buyer can raise a whole other set of issues.
“Sometimes Canada Post is like, ‘we might go on strike! We don’t know, though’, and that totally throws my business out the window, because I might not be able to ship this to the person for the price I listed, and now I’m going to have to pay money to get people my things instead of getting paid for it.”
Despite the struggles she’s had to deal with online, McMichael does appreciate the clientele on Etsy, as most of them are used to buying crafts and know what they’re looking for. They tend to appreciate the time put into her pieces, and don’t mind paying a little extra for something that resulted from a lot of hard work.
At craft shows, this isn’t always the case. While a benefit to selling things in real life is that people are able to feel the product and try it on for themselves, McMichael’s experience is that people are often less knowledgeable about the work that goes into hand-knit crafts. She recalled a specific time when a woman had her son try on a cable-knit hat she was selling.
“She asked me how much I was selling it for, and I told her it was fifty dollars, which is fairly cheap for three or four days of work. That’s not even minimum wage. And she seemed disgusted, and pulled it off the kid’s head and threw it back in my basket, because at Walmart you can get it for three dollars.”
McMichael says a strong online presence is crucial for her developing brand, and part of maintaining this comes through the use of social media. She has her bases covered, with YouTube, Tumblr and Instagram accounts. Her Instagram account has more than a thousand followers, and has a very aesthetically pleasing colour scheme. She says that just as much work goes into maintaining her social media presence as every other aspect of developing her brand.
“If I put effort into social media, then you know I also put effort into what I make,” said McMichael. “Things like having a colour scheme to go on, having a theme. It takes planning, so I actually have to go find images in advance and queue them up.”
But because the internet is such a competitive place, McMichael sometimes finds herself struggling to keep up.
“It’s easy to fall behind, because it’s so quick. Everyone’s always posting and always active, it feels like. So you have to work at it to keep up.”
Instagram recently introduced a new algorithm for how it display posts on a person’s news feed. It was once chronologically, but now it shows the most relevant posts to a specific person’s interests. McMichael says this can make it even harder to compete with people who are consistently posting.
“You can get lost if you miss a day or two, and suddenly you’re irrelevant.”
Despite the struggles, using social media has been an effective tool for gaining followers. However, striking the balance between attracting fellow knitters and potential customers takes a bit of work.
“Knitters aren’t going to buy things for me, so you have to update for what you think your target market is going to be interested in, but also still keep it relevant to your life. So it’s this weird mashup of things now, and I think that switch helped it.”
Because McMichael sells knitted goods, the interest in her products tends to be seasonal. This presents an additional challenge of keeping things updated even when it isn’t the time for people to be buying from her.
“So over the summer I have to keep updated so that at least people will think of my brand for when they do have to go out and buy a hat or something. So it helps, but in waves.”
From starting out knitting a blanket for her grandmother, to now reaching people across the country – or even farther, in some cases– the excitement of selling things online still hasn’t gone away. She often receives stories from the people who sell her products, which doesn’t typically happen after a face-to-face transaction.
“I remember the first thing I sold online was a hair bow to a girl who was going to a convention somewhere in Oregon, or something like that,” said McMichael. “And I was just so excited that it was travelling that far. It was like, ‘I can reach people across the world.’ ”